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What Can Go Wrong: Dallas Cowboys

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In 2007, the Dallas Cowboys were the third best team in football. They featured the 4th ranked pass offense and the 8th ranked rush offense. The cornerstones of that offense are all either young and fresh (Romo, Witten, Barber), or old and indestructible (Owens). Their pass defense ranked 6th and their run defense ranked 14th. The Cowboy front seven is young and deep. Though Zach Thomas will turn 35 before the season starts, the Cowboys can employ him judiciously.  A fresh Thomas, regularly subbed and played to his strengths, is an asset.

The team lost a little depth in the offseason. Players like Akin Ayodele, Jason Ferguson and Anthony Fasano aren’t big names, but make the kind of nuts and bolts contributions that make a unit click. Ayodele is a tough run stopping inside presence, and prior to 2007, Ferguson was their best two gap nose tackle. Neither was truly replaced. Ayodele swapped jerseys with the aforementioned Thomas, and Tank Johnson is the presumed starter at nose.  But both Johnson and Thomas are sure to be subbed regularly, and both a Johnson/Jeremiah Ratliff nose tackle platoon and a Thomas/Bobby Carpenter ILB platoon could represent sizable upgrades over their replacements.

Dallas did not significantly outperform their drive stats. They were not fumble serendipitous or third down lucky. They earned 10.8 estimated wins and won 13. To this young, deep and talented moribund millionaire, Jerry Jones, added Adam “Pacman” Jones. Jones might be unsavory even by Silver and Blue standards, but he’s also supremely talented. Pro Football Prospectus 2007 reports that in just his second season in the league, Jones recorded the second best stop rate on passes targeting the receiver he was covering. I’ve never been very fond of that stat and I’m never surprised by its volatility. It attempts to create a single evaluative standard to measure players doing entirely different things. But Jones satisfies both statistical and scouting standards. If Jones is half the corner his reputation and numbers indicate, the Cowboys have added a formidable playmaking compliment to steady cover corner Terrence Newman.

The Cowboys were a better team than Seattle in 2007. If Adam Jones steps up and stays clean, they could be the best team in football in 2008. Their Achilles Heal is their offensive line. Barber’s hard nosed rushing style and Romo’s grace under pressure helps Dallas look like an above average offensive line (14th run blocking, 7th pass blocking), but (to my eye) their true talent rates as average pass blocking, below average run blocking. Left tackle Flozell Adams has the mix of age, inconsistency and post-contract-year-push letdown that often presages decline or collapse. Right guard Leonard Davis, center Andre Gurode and right tackle Marc Colombo all enjoyed career seasons in 2007. Davis was a bust as a tackle, but flourished as a guard. Early in his career, Colombo, a former first pick by the Bears, suffered a dislocated knee and nerve damage in his left leg. Colombo was penalized with 10 false starts in 2007, perhaps indicating a loss of explosiveness off the snap. All 3 will be 30 by mid-season, not an overly-advanced age for an offensive linemen, and each could hold onto their gains, but it’s unlikely any of the 3 will improve and it is likely any or all of the 3 could regress. That could be the difference between an average line and a well below average line.

Still, the Cowboys should compete. They should be among the NFC’s best, and when Thanksgiving rolls around, it’s easy to see home field at stake. Can you call a game "must win" in June? I think I just did.